Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Confession and Yom Kippur - Musings from Last Year

Three questions about the confessions of sin we recite on Yom Kippur - included in all five of the prayers of the day - had been bothering me for years until a conversation with my wife Elana last year opened my mind up to a totally new perspective that sheds light on the whole concept of Yom Kippur itself. Here are the questions:

1 - Why are the words in the confession so generic ("we have been guilty, we have rebelled, we have been unjust, etc.") instead of specific?

2 -How can we confess for all of these things when we clearly haven't committed, let alone repented, for all of them?

3 - Why does the Rambam say that a person who has repented and confessed his error on one Yom Kippur can go back and do so again, despite the fact that he has not wavered in his repentance and has no new infraction to confess?

Overall, there is an even more general difficulty - how can the Rambam say there is a mitzvah for everyone to repent leading up to Yom Kippur? If one committed a transgression and was required to repent for the sin, he or she should do it because of the sin, not on account of Yom Kippur. And if one has not committed a specific sin, what is one supposed to repent for before the Holiday?

These problems are only problems because we assume that the repentance and confession of Yom Kippur is focused on our personal process of self improvement and development. Because we are attempting to understand repentance and confession in that framework, it makes no sense to repeat generic confessions that are unrelated to our individual repentance process.

However, the reality is that the process of repentance we are obliged to go through prior to Yom Kippur is not primarily about correcting our individual sins and flaws (although that is, of course, a wonderful byproduct). Individualistic repentance should be done year round, whenever a mistake has been recognized it must be acknowledged and corrected. There is no need to defer it until Yom Kippur, and it makes little sense for there to be a "deadline" each year for the completion of our self-improvement.

The theme of Yom Kippur is the general awareness of a gulf that exists between a transcendent, metaphysical Creator and His limited, physical and very flawed creations. Our acknowledgment of myriad sins is a manifestation of our awareness of how distant we are from perfection. And our individual and collective repentance at this time, although it certainly serves to improve us and our lives, also serves to highlight the existence of human imperfection in general and to contrast that with the perfection and transcendence of Hashem.

So, although personal development would not necessitate the repetition of confession - what has been rectified is rectified and requires no further discussion or declaration - our past sins, and the sins of others that we have not committed personally, are indeed relevant to our general awareness of the limitations of the human quest to know and serve God. The occurrence of these transgressions in the past, even though they may have been corrected afterwards, still testifies to the reality that we are finite creatures whose understanding and worship of an infinite Creator is necessarily filled with distortions, shortcomings and flaws. These distortions and flaws are what lead us to value the physically pleasurable and the material over the intellectual or spiritual - i.e., to commit intentional or unintentional transgressions.

This approach is clearly supported in the Torah, where we see that one of the main purposes of the Order of the Temple Service was to cleanse and atone for the Sanctuary itself, which "dwells among the Jews amidst their impurity". In other words, the very notion of human beings standing before and worshiping God must be recognized as paradoxical and deeply problematic. We cannot take it for granted; rather, we must realize that the very institution of a Sanctuary or of a way of life or system of Mitzvot that allows human beings to approach the Almighty is almost an absurdity given our physicality and consequent intellectual and moral limitations.

This "absurdity" can only be "tolerated" provided that we are well aware of the difference between our flawed conceptions of God and His worship on one hand and the ultimate reality on the other hand. We demonstrate our awareness by repenting and confessing individually and communally on Yom Kippur, all the while affirming the transcendence, uniqueness and inscrutability of Hashem throughout the prayers. Indeed, a close examination of the Temple Service, especially the entry into the Holy of Holies and the pronouncement of the ineffable name of God - and the linking of those activities, fascinatingly, to the fasting and repentance of the nation - reveals that this distinction between our limited and distorted understanding of metaphysical truth and the awesomeness of metaphysical reality itself is what is being emphasized throughout the process. To confuse the two is either to denigrate the Creator or to arrogantly lift man onto a pedestal of which he is not worthy.

(I do not mean that Hashem is unsatisfied with man's existence and wants us to feel bad - after all, He created mankind the way that it is. What I mean is that Hashem instructs us to recognize the degree to which we fall short of true knowledge and perfection, for our own sake, so that we bear the proper perspective in mind.)

On Yom Kippur, our personal process of repentance becomes the window through which we perceive the abiding reality of our own humble position in the universe and recognize the tremendous kindness bestowed upon us by our Creator. We acknowledge that despite our inability to truly know Him or live by His wisdom in the absolute sense, and despite our harboring countless illusions and distortions in our view of ourselves, our world and our God which, by pure justice, should be intolerable, He nonetheless grants us "forgiveness" and "atonement", the opportunity and the tools to engage in the lifelong process of striving for an ideal which we never more than partially attain.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Sad, But Not Surprising...

The Open Orthodox movement is taking leave of any semblance of halakhic legitimacy at an alarming pace. Debating the acceptability of reciting a blessing ordained by the Sages of the Talmud was merely a strategy for testing the proverbial waters, an attempt to see whether the introduction of changes in religious practice under the banner of feminism and gender equality would be countenanced by the Orthodox community. It was a successful experiment, indeed, because the response of the Modern Orthodox world to this blatant deviation from halakhic methodology and traditional observance was tepid at best and apathetic at worst.

Only weeks later, further movement in the direction of full-blown egalitarianism is being publicly advocated and endorsed by musmachim of YCT and representatives of Yeshivat Maharat, with the support of other unaffiliated and/or simply non-Orthodox institutions. Those of us who have been monitoring the developments within Open Orthodoxy over the past several years should not be surprised to find its spokespersons giving their rubber stamp to "minyanim" that permit women to lead sections of the tefilla, read from the Torah, and perform other functions that range from the highly questionable to the outright forbidden. Nonetheless, it pains me to witness this turn of events, because I had hoped - against all odds and for the sake of the unity of Klal Yisrael - that this would not happen. What is most troubling tragic is that, due to the slow, quiet process of evolution that is responsible for these changes, the radical quality of their implications has been obscured.

It should be mentioned that the Talmud teaches us that a talented scholar can find numerous seemingly persuasive arguments to permit something that is known to be prohibited. In fact, the ability to do so is considered a sign of tremendous intellectual acumen and a masterful command of Torah knowledge. This means that even a very convincing and well constructed argument can lead to patently false conclusions.

The Open Orthodox camp has marshaled a number of unconventional responsa, original, erudite arguments and abstruse sources to legitimize their positions, just as the Conservative scholars of the 20th century found scattered sources and generated unprecedented arguments to justify their innovations. At the end of the day, however, halakhic tradition beginning with the Mishna, Tosefta and Gemara in Masekhet Megillah has been unequivocal in its stance that women may not read the Torah for the community. The reason behind this principle can be analyzed, discussed, studied and debated, but it remains an iron-clad rule, a dictate of the Sages that we, as Orthodox Jews, must be fully committed to observe.

Aside from the speciousness of creative attempts to "explain away" the halakhic principle that forbids egalitarian Torah reading, the fact is that the traditionally understood meaning of this principle has been applied across the board in our communities for millenia; and this fact, in and of itself, is a sufficient reason to dismiss any and all challenges to its validity. מנהג ישראל תורה היא - the universal, customary practice of the Jewish community is itself an indisputable part of our Oral Tradition.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More on "Morethodoxy"

In a post earlier this week, I took issue with an author on the "Morethodoxy" website, Open Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky. R' Kanefsky has been promoting the view that the blessing שלא עשני אשה , despite its basis in the Talmud and its unanimous acceptance in classic codes of Jewish law, should be eliminated because it clashes with modern sensibilities. In my response, I presented an ideological and methodological critique of the author's approach to halakhic source material in general.

R' Kanefsky has now followed up with a post in which he attempts to bring evidence for his claim that changes in situations and circumstances have precipitated changes in halakhic decisions and practice throughout history. In a comment on his post, I pointed out that no change has occurred in the circumstances in our case - the only change has been in the attitudes of people who have largely misunderstood, and therefore object to, the blessing in question.

Allow me to explain a bit further. Scientific advancement has caused change in halakhic practice, but not because the dictates of halakha have changed. On the contrary, the principles of Torah are eternal and not subject to alteration or evolution. The fact that, nowadays, an eight month old fetus is known to be viable, does not change the law of the Torah. The law is, and always was, that we can violate Shabbat in order to save a life. What has changed is our understanding of biology and the increased capacity of medical personnel to save lives, which has expanded the number of circumstances in which Shabbat can reasonably be violated. This has no relevance whatsoever to the proposal that we should erase a blessing from the prayerbook because a segment of the contemporary population that is unschooled in its meaning suddenly finds it offensive.   

The R' Kanefsky also makes reference to the institution of Prozbul, which is a mechanism by which the cancellation of loans in the Shemitta (Sabbatical Year) can be sidestepped.  I am sure that he is aware of the fact that this example is a favorite of Conservative rabbis who routinely use it to justify and legitimize the innovations they propose. Sadly, it is as irrelevant to his argument as it is to theirs.

As our Rishonim (Medieval Scholars) explain, Hillel worked within the principles of halakha to find a solution. He understood that Shemitta, in our time, is only a Rabbinic institution, and therefore found a Rabbinically sanctioned approach to resolve the problem. He didn't cancel out or eliminate any laws, Biblical or Rabbinic. He developed a solution within the system that is fully consistent with its principles and did not require tampering with or adjusting them. 

I would like to progress one step further and examine one of the specific proof texts R' Kanefsky marshals to support his argument. After all, he seems to be doing his best to root his position in traditional sources, and we should give him the benefit of the doubt on this score. Let's see if the source actually states or implies what he claims it does.

R' Kanefsky's post refers to a Tosafot in Masekhet Avodah Zara 15A as an example of halakha changing in response to the emergence of new circumstances. The Tosafot is grappling with an apparent conflict between the customary practice in their time and the law as established in the Talmud. Specifically, the Talmud prohibits the sale of certain kinds of livestock to idolaters. Tosafot observed that, contrary to this ruling, the sale of livestock to idolaters was commonplace in their day, and fully sanctioned by the Rabbinic authorities.

They answer that the Rabbinic prohibition on selling livestock to idolaters only applies to a time in which Jewish communities are independent, united and self-sustaining, such that one who needed to sell an animal could just as easily sell it to a fellow Jew as to an idolater. Nowadays, however, when Jews are interspersed among idolaters and share a common market with them, we have no choice but to sell livestock to idolaters in order to prevent financial loss.

R' Kanefsky wishes to argue, based upon this Tosafot, that the law changed when the circumstances changed. After all, it used to be forbidden for Jews to sell livestock to idolaters; now, given the fact that we coexist with them and would suffer financially otherwise, we are permitted to do so. We see, then, says R' Kanefsky, that the law must be updated to address contemporary needs.

The simplest objection to this line of reasoning is that it is not comparable to the case of שלא עשני אשה at all. The Tosafot do not say that because we are more sensitive to the feelings of the idolaters we must recalibrate our practice. They don't recommend that we sell livestock to idolaters because they will otherwise be offended in some way. But we can leave aside this important point of criticism for a moment and focus on what Tosafot are, indeed, teaching us. 

For once we analyze the Tosafot ourselves, we find that the interpretation of their words put forth by R' Kanefsky is fundamentally flawed. The Tosafot, in fact, are saying the opposite of what R' Kanefsky attributes to them. The Tosafot maintain that the law, as originally formulated by our Sages is still 100% valid and binding.

What they are proposing is that, from the outset, the Rabbis only meant to prohibit selling livestock to idolaters when the objective of the seller is to increase his revenue. The Rabbis of the Talmud, who promulgated this legislation, never intended for their prohibition to extend to situations in which financial loss would be incurred.Tosafot are not justifying a change in the law - they are clarifying what they believe to be the proper understanding of the law, which happens to account for the manner in which it was being observed (or, apparently, being neglected to some degree) in their time.

What is the proof that Tosafot uphold the Rabbinic legislation and are merely interpreting the originally intended parameters of the law? How do we know they are not discarding the law in the face of changed circumstances? The answer is the last line of the Tosafot, which R' Kanefsky does not address:

"Rabbenu Barukh ruled that, according to this, it is only in a situation where a Jew purchased a horse for his own use and then decides that he no longer needs it that he is allowed to sell it to an idolater, since otherwise he will incur a financial loss. He is not permitted to purchase horses with the express intent of reselling them in order to make money, since he has the option of not purchasing them to begin with and therefore not incurring any loss."

In other words, the law as stated in the Talmud never changed and is still in effect; its validity and binding status have not been diminished one iota by the changed circumstances. Yes, the Tosafot are interpreting the law in view of the evidence of the Rabbinically-endorsed precedent established in their communities, and they conclude that the law is applicable to a specific set of cases and not others.

But they are not suggesting, in any way, shape or form, that the law itself could or would ever be altered to meet the needs of their generation. Nor are they intimating that such an alteration of the law would be justified by changed circumstances; on the contrary, they realize that contemporary practice must be sanctioned by the law, and for this very reason they offer an interpretation of its parameters that is compatible with the custom of their communities.

In conclusion, it seems to me that R' Kanefsky is "using" sources to support his own methodology rather than studying them to discover the methodology of our Rabbis. Rather than grasp the true message of the Tosafot - that halakha cannot possibly be changed to satisfy our needs - he appears to recast the Tosafot in the image of Medieval Conservative Rabbis who consciously reshape halakha in accordance with their desires and sensibilities. It is unclear how he reconciles this view of the בעלי המסורה with the tenets of Orthodoxy.

This is a very poignant and noteworthy illustration of what is, in my opinion, one of the most worrisome elements of the Open Orthodox approach.

Update

Cross-Currents has agreed to edit the post that gratuitously linked me to Open Orthodox ideology and practices.

Many thanks to the authors of Cross-Currents for making what I believe to be the right decision in this matter.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When "More" Is Less


Recently, a blog post published by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky concluded that we should no longer recite the blessing שלא עשני אשה  and that, in fact, to do so constitutes a חילול השם. The author adduces several questionable sources to support his proposal and which can be debated and addressed by more competent scholars elsewhere.


 What is most noteworthy and disturbing about the article is not its source material, argumentation or conclusion. What is of greatest concern is the ideological bias that seems to direct the “innovative” reasoning and to undermine the independence and rationality of the halakhic process.  Most striking about the blog post is not the unusual recommendation that emerges from it but the problematic methodology that leads the author to that recommendation.

The Talmud in Masekhet Menahot and Masekhet Berakhot clearly and unequivocally mandates the daily recitation of the blessing of שלא עשני אשה . Millennia before the advent of modern feminism, the Rabbis were already careful to point out this blessing was not intended to imply the innate superiority of men. The Tosefta in Masekhet Berakhot simply and elegantly explains that the blessing is said because women are obligated in less mitzvot than men. Since one who is commanded to fulfill a mitzvah receives greater reward than one who is not thus commanded, this means that men have a relative advantage when it comes to שכר מצוה. There is nothing chauvinistic or misogynistic about the blessing, it is merely a reflection of the fact that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments.


Ironically, the Rabbis did not need 20th or 21st century feminists to pressure them into developing this interpretation of the blessing. It is not an apologetic that was introduced after the fact or under duress. It is the primary and authentic explanation for the origin of the blessing, straight from the mouths of the Tannaim who instituted it.


Despite this seemingly unequivocal picture of the basis for the blessing in our tradition, it does not “sit well” aesthetically with many modern liberal thinkers who respond to its meaning with their hearts rather than their heads. Such thinkers have determined that the blessing has much broader ramifications than its creators ever imagined. Their feeling of distaste toward the blessing inspired them to seek a way to nullify their obligation to recite it.


Misinterpretations and errors occur in halakhic discourse all the time, and we cannot condemn a rabbi too harshly for making a mistake in his analysis –  as David Hamelekh said, שגיאות מי יבין. Had the Open Orthodox writers merely failed to understand the halakha properly, this could have been pointed out to them and they might have retracted or corrected their views accordingly.


This is where the fundamental problem with Open Orthodox halakhic analysis reveals itself. It evinces a fidelity to halakha, up to a point. When push comes to shove, however, the “smell test”, the subjective feeling and the personal intuition override the demands of halakha. Instead of a dispassionate and honest analysis of the traditional sources in light of the mesorah, founded on a conviction in their absolute truth, we find the “use” of an array of sources that, carefully organized, reach a predetermined objective or quell an inner “emotional discomfort” in the analyst.


Eliminating one blessing from the siddur, in and of itself, seems almost harmless. But it will not be long before this kind of subjective halakhic methodology leads to further, and more disastrous, innovation. Will sympathy with the plight of homosexual Jews inspire Open Orthodoxy to find a halakhic basis for sanctifying their marriages? Will Kohanim be offered permission to marry divorced women or converts? Surely, the same incessant tug at the heartstrings of these rabbis that convinced them to discard a blessing enshrined in our tradition for generations will, one day soon, convince them that the Torah’s restrictions in these areas (and perhaps others) are just too offensive to our sensibilities and must be “reconsidered” in light of the values of modernity and inclusiveness. Of course, these rabbis will find the sources they need to back up their claim, they will fashion carefully constructed arguments לטהר את השרץ   that appear to validate their preconceived conclusions, and they will be מחבל את הכרם in short order.


The mainstay of our mesorah has been the objective reality of halakha and the dispassionate study of its principles. Allowing our sentimentality to guide our analysis of the Torah is a recipe for disaster that places the direction of our eternal religion in the hands of the eternally shifting attitudes of the society in which we live. The blog post about שלא עשני אשה is not just an error about one halakha. It is the articulation of a methodology of halakha that has been the defining feature of every deviant sect of Judaism from the time of Korach until the present day.   

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Five Tragedies, One Lesson

The Rambam, following the Talmud, describes five tragedies that occurred on the Seventeenth of Tammuz:

"Five events occurred on the Seventeenth of Tammuz: The tablets containing the "Ten Commandments" were shattered; the daily sacrifice in the First Temple was discontinued, the wall of Jerusalem was breached prior to the destruction of the Second Temple,the Wicked Apostemos burned a Torah Scroll, and an idol was placed in the היכל, the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple."

Interestingly, five tragedies also occurred on Tisha B'av, the fast we will be observing exactly three weeks from today:

"It was decreed upon the generation that left Egypt that they would not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel, the First Temple was destroyed, the Second Temple was destroyed, a great city named Beitar was captured - it contained tens of thousands of Jews, and they had a great King whom all of Israel and its greatest Sages believed was the Mashiach, and it fell into the hands of the nations, and they were all killed - it was a tragedy as severe as the destruction of the Temple, and on that very day destined for suffering, Turnus Rufus, the wicked Edomite king, plowed the area of the היכל and its environs, in fulfillment of the verse, "Zion will be plowed like a field."

If you examine the basis of each fast carefully, you may note a remarkable parallel between them.




Broken Tablets/Sin of Golden Calf                                               Wandering in Wilderness/Sin of Spies

Interruption of Service First Temple                                            Destruction of First Temple

Breaching of Wall Second Temple                                                Destruction of Second Temple

Burning of Torah Scroll                             
Dream of Religious/Political Renaissance Crushed

Idol Placed in Sanctuary                                                              Sanctuary Totally Plowed


The first tragedy associated with the 17th of Tammuz is the shattering of the tablets, which was the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. The first tragedy associated with the 9th of Av is the decree banning the first generation of Jews from entering the land of Israel, which was the consequence of the sin of the spies. Although, at first blush, these may seem unrelated, the Rabbis tell us that the sin of the Golden Calf established the groundwork for the sin of the Spies, it was the combination of the two that caused the Jews to be forced to wander in the desert for forty years.

Similarly, we observe that a precursor of each tragedy on Tisha B'av manifested itself on the 17th of Tammuz. The discontinuation of the Daily Offering in the First Temple foreshadowed its destruction. The breaching of the wall around Jerusalem was the beginning of the destruction of the Second Temple. The burning of the Torah scroll represented the beginning of the process of "stamping out" the independence of Jewish thought, observance and community - the massacre at Beitar, whose citizens embodied the renewed possibility of a Jewish government founded upon Torah and Mitzvot, was the horrific culmination of that effort.

The question is, then, why isn't Tisha B'av enough? Why must we observe the 17th of Tammuz, if all it commemorates is a pale shadow of the horrific tragedies we will mourn three weeks from now?

I believe the lesson here is a simple but extremely important one - recognize the signs of impending disaster and respond to them before it is too late! Had the Jewish people fully appreciate the implications of the events of the 17th of Tammuz, had they utilized them as a springboard for the self-reflection and repentance they were intended to inspire, then the harrowing tragedies of the 9th of Av would never have come to pass.

Sadly, in our individual as well as our communal lives, we rarely perceive the warning signs that are presented to us. We continue forging ahead along the same path until disaster strikes. I could quote several verses from Proverbs (Mishlei) to illustrate this, or a multitude of passages from Sefer Yirmiyahu that address this, but it would unnecessarily lengthen this post. Suffice it to say that this is a key theme of both books.

Hashem has provided us with a wondrously educational environment in which every action elicits a reaction, every choice has a consequence. Even more beautifully, the severest consequences, generally speaking, do not manifest themselves immediately - there are indications of trouble, subtle at first and then increasingly dire and worrisome, before the waves of crisis inundate us.

One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people as they are portrayed in the Book of Yirmiyahu -and of the fool as he is portrayed in the Book of Proverbs - is the lack of foresight they exhibit in their way of life. Even as their circumstances grow more and more intolerable, they remain stubbornly attached to the habits, beliefs and attitudes that led them into trouble to begin with.

Today, people with failing businesses or failing relationships are convinced that doing more or less of the same kinds of things will save them from trouble. People who are in a spiritual rut are confident that more or less of the same behavior will lead them back in the direction of success. The truth is, however, that stumbling and struggling are signs that something is WRONG, the stumbling and struggling will intensify if the status quo is maintained, and it is unlikely that the downward spiral will reverse itself unless the person involved decides to consciously change his/her course in a fundamental, not just a quantitative, way.

A terrific case in point is Border's - they are finally liquidating all of their stores, and it did not come as a surprise to anyone. When things took a serious downturn for them, they closed many of their locations and awaited a bailout from heaven...What they failed to do, however, was recognize the errors that were responsible for the initial "warning signs" of trouble and make the fundamental shifts in vision and strategy that would have been necessary to regain a footing in the market. They could conceive of doing more or less of what they were accustomed to doing, but what they really needed was to acknowledge the realities of the current world and pursue a totally new and more adaptive approach.

My children truly hate smoke detectors. They are scared out of their wits when something burns in the kitchen and the alarm goes off. Many times they have requested that we remove or dismantle the smoke detectors once and for all. What they don't realize is that the smoke detectors serve an important purpose - they draw our attention to the presence of smoke, and where there is smoke, there very well might be fire! Getting rid of the smoke alarm might temporarily relieve us of the pain of hearing its shrill sound, but this would leave us ignorant of potentially serious problems and vulnerable to far worse calamities.

The events of the 17th of Tammuz were the smoke alarm of the Jewish people. They signaled the beginnings of the withdrawal of God's providence from the nation and should have moved them to acknowledge their waywardness and repent immediately. This would have allowed them to avert disaster. Unfortunately, they opted to disable the smoke alarm rather than investigate the emergent crisis to which it was pointing.

Let us learn the lesson of the 17th of Tammuz and respond wisely to the cries of the smoke alarms in our lives.

Have a meaningful fast.

Friday, July 01, 2011

New Blog - Sephardic Bet Midrash

Please take a moment to visit my new blog, "Sephardic Bet Midrash":

http://sephardicbetmidrash.blogspot.com

I will be presenting summaries of the in-depth classes in Halakha that we conduct here at Magen David Sephardic Congregation every Thursday night. Currently, we are studying the laws of Milk and Meat in the Shulhan Arukh.

It is not meant to replace this blog, just to supplement....

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Can Say Goodbye

I Can Say Goodbye

I can say goodbye to you today

Like a flower says goodbye

To the soil that fills its veins with life,

And wrapped gingerly in a blanket of tears is laid

On chilly graveyard’s impenetrable ground

Or is left by fluttering hearts to wait and wilt

On unrequited love’s cruel threshold.

I can live apart from you tomorrow

But only if a rainbow’s graceful arc can shine undimmed

Without the brilliant shades of sunlight’s palette

And the canvas of misty air on which she paints.

I ask myself,

Will not my ears be deaf to music

Once emptied of the soothing balm of your sweet voice?

Will not my arms be cold and cracked as stone

Once robbed of all the warmth of your embrace?

What picture of the world can I envision

Without your eyes to light the paths before me

Without your words to mollify my spirit

And your hand to lend me strength when I fall down?

How then will I take leave of you today

And how will I move on alone tomorrow?

I do not know.

Farewell

The process of bidding farewell to my Congregation in Maryland has been immensely painful. Although I believe that I am making the right decision for my family, facing the prospect of leaving behind so many beloved friends has broken my heart. The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, has always touched me. At this time, its final chapter resonates with me more deeply than ever before: And Almitra the seeress said, “Blessed be this day and this place and your spirit that has spoken.” And he answered, “Was it I who spoke? Was I not also a listener?” Then he descended the steps of the Temple and all the people followed him. And he reached his ship and stood upon the deck. And facing the people again, he raised his voice and said: People of Orphalese, the wind bids me leave you. Less hasty am I than the wind, yet I must go. We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered. Brief were my days among you, and briefer still the words I have spoken. But should my voice fade in your ears, and my love vanish in your memory, then I will come again, And with a richer heart and lips more yielding to the spirit will I speak. Yea, I shall return with the tide, And though death may hide me, and the greater silence enfold me, yet again will I seek your understanding. And not in vain will I seek. If aught I have said is truth, that truth shall reveal itself in a clearer voice, and in words more kin to your thoughts. I go with the wind, people of Orphalese, but not down into emptiness; And if this day is not a fulfillment of your needs and my love, then let it be a promise till another day. Man's needs change, but not his love, nor his desire that his love should satisfy his needs. Know therefore, that from the greater silence I shall return. The mist that drifts away at dawn, leaving but dew in the fields, shall rise and gather into a cloud and then fall down in rain. And not unlike the mist have I been. In the stillness of the night I have walked in your streets, and my spirit has entered your houses, And your heart-beats were in my heart, and your breath was upon my face, and I knew you all. Ay, I knew your joy and your pain, and in your sleep your dreams were my dreams. And oftentimes I was among you a lake among the mountains. I mirrored the summits in you and the bending slopes, and even the passing flocks of your thoughts and your desires. And to my silence came the laughter of your children in streams, and the longing of your youths in rivers. And when they reached my depth the streams and the rivers ceased not yet to sing. But sweeter still than laughter and greater than longing came to me. It was boundless in you; The vast man in whom you are all but cells and sinews; He in whose chant all your singing is but a soundless throbbing. It is in the vast man that you are vast, And in beholding him that I beheld you and loved you. For what distances can love reach that are not in that vast sphere? What visions, what expectations and what presumptions can outsoar that flight? Like a giant oak tree covered with apple blossoms is the vast man in you. His mind binds you to the earth, his fragrance lifts you into space, and in his durability you are deathless. You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconsistency. Ay, you are like an ocean, And though heavy-grounded ships await the tide upon your shores, yet, even like an ocean, you cannot hasten your tides. And like the seasons you are also, And though in your winter you deny your spring, Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended. Think not I say these things in order that you may say the one to the other, “He praised us well. He saw but the good in us.” I only speak to you in words of that which you yourselves know in thought. And what is word knowledge but a shadow of wordless knowledge? Your thoughts and my words are waves from a sealed memory that keeps records of our yesterdays, And of the ancient days when the earth knew not us nor herself, And of nights when earth was upwrought with confusion, Wise men have come to you to give you of their wisdom. I came to take of your wisdom: And behold I have found that which is greater than wisdom. It is a flame spirit in you ever gathering more of itself, While you, heedless of its expansion, bewail the withering of your days. It is life in quest of life in bodies that fear the grave. There are no graves here. These mountains and plains are a cradle and a stepping-stone. Whenever you pass by the field where you have laid your ancestors look well thereupon, and you shall see yourselves and your children dancing hand in hand. Verily you often make merry without knowing. Others have come to you to whom for golden promises made unto your faith you have given but riches and power and glory. Less than a promise have I given, and yet more generous have you been to me. You have given me deeper thirsting after life. Surely there is no greater gift to a man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain. And in this lies my honor and my reward, - That whenever I come to the fountain to drink I find the living water itself thirsty; And it drinks me while I drink it. Some of you have deemed me proud and over-shy to receive gifts. To proud indeed am I to receive wages, but not gifts. And though I have eaten berries among the hill when you would have had me sit at your board, And slept in the portico of the temple where you would gladly have sheltered me, Yet was it not your loving mindfulness of my days and my nights that made food sweet to my mouth and girdled my sleep with visions? For this I bless you most: You give much and know not that you give at all. Verily the kindness that gazes upon itself in a mirror turns to stone, And a good deed that calls itself by tender names becomes the parent to a curse. And some of you have called me aloof, and drunk with my own aloneness, And you have said, “He holds council with the trees of the forest, but not with men. He sits alone on hill-tops and looks down upon our city.” True it is that I have climbed the hills and walked in remote places. How could I have seen you save from a great height or a great distance? How can one be indeed near unless he be far? And others among you called unto me, not in words, and they said, Stranger, stranger, lover of unreachable heights, why dwell you among the summits where eagles build their nests? Why seek you the unattainable? What storms would you trap in your net, And what vaporous birds do you hunt in the sky? Come and be one of us. Descend and appease your hunger with our bread and quench your thirst with our wine.” In the solitude of their souls they said these things; But were their solitude deeper they would have known that I sought but the secret of your joy and your pain, And I hunted only your larger selves that walk the sky. But the hunter was also the hunted: For many of my arrows left my bow only to seek my own breast. And the flier was also the creeper; For when my wings were spread in the sun their shadow upon the earth was a turtle. And I the believer was also the doubter; For often have I put my finger in my own wound that I might have the greater belief in you and the greater knowledge of you. And it is with this belief and this knowledge that I say, You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind. It is not a thing that crawls into the sun for warmth or digs holes into darkness for safety, But a thing free, a spirit that envelops the earth and moves in the ether. If this be vague words, then seek not to clear them. Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end, And I fain would have you remember me as a beginning. Life, and all that lives, is conceived in the mist and not in the crystal. And who knows but a crystal is mist in decay? This would I have you remember in remembering me: That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined. Is it not your breath that has erected and hardened the structure of your bones? And is it not a dream which none of you remember having dreamt that building your city and fashioned all there is in it? Could you but see the tides of that breath you would cease to see all else, And if you could hear the whispering of the dream you would hear no other sound. But you do not see, nor do you hear, and it is well. The veil that clouds your eyes shall be lifted by the hands that wove it, And the clay that fills your ears shall be pierced by those fingers that kneaded it. And you shall see And you shall hear. Yet you shall not deplore having known blindness, nor regret having been deaf. For in that day you shall know the hidden purposes in all things, And you shall bless darkness as you would bless light. After saying these things he looked about him, and he saw the pilot of his ship standing by the helm and gazing now at the full sails and now at the distance. And he said: Patient, over-patient, is the captain of my ship. The wind blows, and restless are the sails; Even the rudder begs direction; Yet quietly my captain awaits my silence. And these my mariners, who have heard the choir of the greater sea, they too have heard me patiently. Now they shall wait no longer. I am ready. The stream has reached the sea, and once more the great mother holds her son against her breast. Fare you well, people of Orphalese. This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver. Forget not that I shall come back to you. A little while, and my longing shall gather dust and foam for another body. A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me. Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you. It was but yesterday we met in a dream. You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky. But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn. The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part. If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song. And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gathering Together

This week's Parasha begins with the words "Vayaqhel Moshe", and Moshe gathered the Jewish people together. In this instance, the purpose of the gathering was to educate the Children of Israel - to present them with an exhortation about the observance of Shabbat, and to provide them with the directions necessary for them to construct the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, in accordance with the will of God.

However, one cannot help but notice that the last time the word "gather" or "congregate" was used, it was under very different circumstances, "And the people gathered around Aharon and said, get up and fashion for us a god..." It is no accident that the same verb utilized in the context of the building and worship of the Golden Calf is now employed to describe the rededication of the Jewish people to the service of Hashem.

Indeed, for all the similarity between the 'gatherings', there is a noteworthy difference. The first time the verb is used, the motive behind the gathering emerges from the people themselves - "vayiqahel ha-am", and the people congregated of their own accord - whereas the second time, it is Moshe who invites them to congregate. The first time, the emotions of fear, panic and insecurity that overwhelmed the people created mass hysteria and moved them to gather together for idolatrous purposes. The second time, the wise leadership of Moshe brought the crowd together for educational reasons.

The contrast between the episodes highlights an important principle - that community, when its resources are combined and its focus is unified, is truly a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, when this force is an unbridled one, this pooling of untold energy, ambition and excitement can eventuate in catastrophe.

Only when the community comes together in a well-orchestrated, goal-directed and intelligent manner, with clear vision and with proper spiritual leadership and guidance, can we be confident that its tremendous power will be harnessed for noble ends.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Neglecting the Blog

The neglect I have shown my blogs over the past couple of years is the result of multiple causes - less time at my disposal being a primary one - and returning to the blogosphere feels awkward and seems like it demands a "reason". This itself becomes a reason to refrain from contributing to the great online conversation that has made, and still makes, blogging so appealing to many of us. In the meantime, my blogs have been caked over with thousands of spam comments which, at some point, became so overwhelming that I simply gave up trying to delete them.

I suppose the thrust of this blog post is that I am set to attempt yet another foray into the blogosphere. No big promises or broad agendas this time. Just reopening a door to a realm that once brought me great intellectual satisfaction, offered me tough challenges that sharpened my thinking, and provided an opportunity for me to share I ideas I otherwise never would have published.

I have so much material, and no particularly clear sense of where to start. But I remain keenly interested in starting somewhere.